The phrase ‘animated roulette’, how Churchill described dog races in 1928, is repeatedly referred to in Heathcote Williams’s cruel and cutting The Local Stigmatic, and seems to strike at the heart of the sixty-minute piece. It’s a short story that burns in the bowels of humanity: Mamet meets LaBute in its probing insight into masculinity and evil. Adapted as a film in 1990 starring Al Pacino (almost made unwatchable by accents), Williams’s play remains an absorbing piece of theatre fifty years on.
Roulette is a game of chance: a tilted, circular spinning of numbers, colours, clicking and trilling, repetitive like white noise, until the decreasing momentum slots the ball into a pocket. While greyhound racing is animated with deadening, frantic activity, something in it is still so insidiously lifeless, with the mechanical hare tauntingly dangling ahead of the pack. It’s the unsettling coupling of red-blooded creatures and the cold grey of the event, the dogs being numbered and reduced to a transaction. Take something living and show how lifeless it can be.
Director Michael Toumey creates a similar world of animated lifelessness. Pictures of Twiggy, the With the Beatles album cover, and other sixties icons decorate the main wall of Graham (Wilson James) and Ray’s (William Frazer) flat. Fame is flattened into two dimensions and stares uncomfortably at the audience. Both men dress the same: a polo neck and chelsea boots, the only difference the shades of their leather jackets. They read the paper to extrapolate data — either odds for the next race or the relocation of their local celebrities — as if they were at a casino. A sixties soundtrack simmers between scenes as the men lean statically against walls in the West End. It’s life, but it’s numbingly idle.
Graham’s obsession with fame is akin to his fixation with dog racing. He treats both as currency and collectors’ items, a way to catalogue and control his life. Ray is less compulsive, more voyeuristic, as he listens stonily to Graham moan about a losing dog, ‘Hermosa of Selsdon’. Their pulsating competition for power amplifies when they meet David (Tom Sawyer), one of Graham’s celebrity stalks, and grows into a surging and at times homoerotic rhythm until it erupts in violence.
Toumey’s production doesn’t really hit the target, and occasionally feels a blunt blade. Incessant shouting dulls the impact of its incision, and the stage seems underutilized, as tables and chairs become needless obstacles for the actors. And that balance between humanity and the inhumane seems off-kilter; it produces a sort of arrhythmia. James’s eyes are stretched wide and make for a stylized performance but it fails to show the character’s soul, the human behind the sociopath. And when Graham and Ray flirt with David, it’s an overt performance that diminishes the real seduction that is taking place.
In The Local Stigmatic, games are played with the living by rendering them lifeless. And that in itself is seductive, just as gambling is. It is the interplay between what animates, what thrills, what disturbs and what deadens which creates a trance that has an abrupt ending. Williams chillingly pierces the heart before the brain can catch up. It takes a moment to recognise the cyclical nature, the rotating roulette, the centripetal track of the violence which leaves you feeling cold and disturbed. That’s the realisation sorely missed in this production: the script promises a mark of disgrace, but it is a deeply human one.
The Local Stigmatic is on until 28th May 2016. Click here for tickets.